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Fate of Captive Animals in Florida Theme Park Hangs in Balance

Miami Seaquarium
Credit: Leonardo DaSilva via Flickr

Experts have revealed what will become of marine animals currently living at the Florida theme park facing permanent closure.

After years of controversy, the end is nigh for one Florida park. Having violated the terms of its lease by failing to provide its animal residents with adequate care, Miami-Wade County declared in March that it was serving Miami Seaquarium with an eviction notice requiring it to vacate the premises by April 21 (in other words, by this Sunday).

Tokitae killer whale and trainer at Miami Seaquarium

Credit: Isabelle Puaut via Flickr

Related: UPDATE – Florida Theme Park Evicted, Will Close for Good This Month

The oceanarium has remained adamant that it’s improving its animal facilities and released a public letter earlier this month addressed to the county’s Chief Operating Officer Jimmy Morales, arguing that it had “established a routine maintenance schedule to regularly assess and maintain the condition of the premises, preventing future neglect or deterioration.”

With this in mind, it’s unclear what exactly will happen come Sunday. As of April 19 – two days before its eviction deadline – Miami Seaquarium is still operating, offering one-day tickets for $41.99 and interactive animal experiences with dolphins, sharks, rays, and other animals for as much as $219.99 per person.

Tokitae performing as Lolita at Miami Seaquarium

Credit: Leonardo DaSilva via Flickr

It’s also unclear what exactly will become of the marine mammals whose disappointing living conditions – complete with bacteria-ridden waters and crumbling exhibits – have been detailed in multiple USDA reports. While activists and theme park fans alike have voiced their support for freeing them into the wild, this is easier said than done.

Will Miami Seaquarium Residents Return to the Wild?

For many animals born or raised in captivity, it’s difficult – if not impossible – to adapt to open waters. Most famously, Keiko, the whale who played the eponymous character in Free Willy (1993), failed to integrate himself with orca pods after being released into Icelandic waters. He instead followed his fellow killer whales at a distance and sought out human company until he died of pneumonia just over a year after he was fully free. Keiko served as evidence for many who disputed Miami Seaquarium’s previous promise to free its last remaining killer whale, Lolita (AKA Tokitae), before her death in August 2023.

Trainer in a wetsuit on the back of an orca at Florida theme park Miami Seaquarium

Credit: Isabelle Puaut via Flickr

Several experts have detailed the more likely fate that awaits Miami Seaquarium’s residents: sanctuaries that provide controlled access to their natural environments.

However, the reality is that transporting animals to these sanctuaries is expensive. Extremely expensive. “Placing dozens of marine mammals and hundreds of land mammals and birds is a massive task,” Camille Labchuk, executive director of Canadian animal law organization Animal Justice, told Sentient. “We believe governments should step in to play a role and help come up with solutions.”

Four dolphins perform in the water at Florida theme park Miami Seaquarium

Credit: Leonardo Dasilva via Flickr

A potential alternative? Transforming the space already occupied by Miami Seaquarium into a sanctuary. This idea was proposed by ecologist and science writer Spencer Roberts, who explained that it would require Miami-Dade County to step up and assemble a task force of veterinarians and marine biologists to transform the park into “a sanctuary/rehabilitation center” for animals that cannot return to the wild.

The Miami Seaquarium should be turned into an animal sanctuary.

I work at the marine lab next door and have advocated for this idea, so the local news asked me how it could work.

This video is my segment on @CBSMiami and this thread is a more detailed roadmap to get there.

The Most Likely Solution for Animals at the Florida Theme Park

Even Roberts’ plan is a pricy solution. What seems increasingly likely is that the animals currently in the care of Miami Seaquarium will be relocated to institutions accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. This “recognizes institutions that meet the highest professional standards for animal welfare, scientific education and staff training.”

Unsurprisingly, Miami Seaquarium is not AZA accredited. There are, however, several institutions in Florida that are and may be able to take in the park’s residents.

Two seals lying next to each other on concrete

Credit: Miami Seaquarium

Related: Florida Theme Park “Intimidates” Employees as Government-Mandated Closure Approaches

This includes SeaWorld Orlando – which, for all the controversy and backlash it’s generated over the years, was previously pushed as a preferable option for Tokitae by her trainers during her lifetime – and The Seas at Walt Disney World Resort’s EPCOT. Discovery Cove, The Florida Aquarium, Marineland, SEA LIFE Orlando Aquarium, Busch Gardens, ZooTampa, and Zoo Miami are all also potential homes for relocated marine mammals and fish.

Making this option all the more likely is the fact that animals have already made the move to several of these locations in the past. In December 2023, two elderly manatees – Romeo and Juliet – were relocated from the Miami Seaquarium to SeaWorld Orlando and ZooTampa, respectively. Li’i the dolphin, who previously shared a tank with Tokitae, also moved to SeaWorld San Antonio in September.

Do you think marine mammals should be kept in captivity? Share your opinion with us in the comments!

This post originally appeared on Inside the Magic

About Chloe James

Chloë is a theme park addict and self-proclaimed novelty hunter. She's obsessed with all things Star Wars, loves roller coasters (but hates Pixar Pal-A-Round), and lives for Disney's next Muppets project.

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